No turning back

March 18, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH did the right thing yesterday in snubbing Gerry Adams, leader of Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein, by not agreeing to meet with him for St. Patrick's Day. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy did the right thing in snubbing him, too. Now, neither should do the wrong thing by trying to keep the nationalist party permanently frozen out of the negotiations over the future of Ulster.

The Good Friday agreement of 1998 put Northern Ireland on the path to a resolution of its sectarian troubles, but in the seven years since then, that path has proved to be neither smooth nor straight. A major problem has been the refusal of the Irish Republican Army to disarm, although violence in the province fell substantially. But two recent events put the IRA in an especially harsh light: First, in December, it was accused of hitting a Belfast bank and pulling off the largest theft of cash in history (about $50 million). Then, a month later, a gang of men from the IRA were accused of killing a Belfast Catholic named Robert McCartney.

Mr. McCartney's fiancM-ie and five sisters, refusing to be cowed, went public with their anger. They have demanded justice - in a court of law, not by some other band of gunmen - and yesterday they met with Mr. Bush. Senator Kennedy rightly pointed out that in modern Europe there can be no room for a political party (Sinn Fein) maintaining a private militia (the IRA). The IRA, he said, must go.

No objections here to that. But a decision to cut off all engagement with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA exists would be foolish and self-defeating. It is worth remembering that the drearily endless troubles in Northern Ireland began to wind down after more than 20 years when President Bill Clinton expressed a willingness to deal with Mr. Adams. Sinn Fein came in out of the cold and, with the mediation of former Sen. George J. Mitchell, the Good Friday pact was reached.

Recalcitrance on the part of Mr. Adams and his cohorts since then justifies prodding and scolding from Washington (and London and Dublin). But to give up on Sinn Fein now would be to give up on a peaceful settlement. It would encourage the worst elements in the IRA and the various other bands that have splintered off from it.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, pointed out during a visit to Baltimore on Wednesday that the Republic of Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in Europe, and that for the first time in history Ireland now has more people moving in than out (30,000 Poles last year, for instance, taking advantage of their new European Union membership). Ireland enjoys unparalleled prosperity. The people of Ulster could share in that, rather than in the culture of hard men that has left the McCartneys so angry and bereaved. And this recognition makes the prospect of a real, permanent settlement that much more enticing, and that much more doable.

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